20 years on from the Kosovo War, England clinched a 4-0 win in EURO 2020 qualifying in Pristina. The football match was a friendly affair, but its billing covers up the problems still facing the young Balkan state.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that the EURO 2020 qualifier between Kosovo and England was not of any sporting significance. The hosts' loss to the Czech Republic on Thursday ensured that even a win against the Three Lions wouldn’t be enough for UEFA's youngest member to directly qualify for next summer’s showpiece event.
That’s not what the encounter on Sunday evening in Pristina was about. Instead, the final qualification match in Group A was billed as a celebration of a unique relationship that went beyond the pitch.
For days on end, the capital of Kosovo had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of their guests from England. "Welcome broooo" adorned one giant poster in a shop window in the city center accompanied by a picture of English forward Raheem Sterling.
Elsewhere, banners were hung across streets bearing the flags of both nations, the slogan "Welcome & Respect" and the English poppy, which is a symbol of remembrance of World War I and fallen soldiers.
"We did this out of appreciation for our friends who helped us with the creation of our state," explained Agim Ademi, president of the Football Federation of Kosovo (FFK) when talking to DW the day before the game against England. "England played a key role in this, and its Prime Minister Tony Blair."
The help not forgotten
The roughly 19,000 British soldiers in KFOR, a NATO-led international peacekeeping force, maintained a strong presence in Pristina following the Kosovo War. They patrolled the streets and provided security. One famous picture from 1999 showed a British soldier breaking from his patrol routine to play football with the local Kosovar children. Furthermore, England was a safe haven for many refugees of the war. All things that have not been forgotten in Kosovo.
According to Ademi, a second, more current reason behind the England-friendly displays, is the racist abuse suffered by the England national team during recent trips to Eastern Europe, most recently in Bulgaria.
"We actually were discriminated against for a long time we know how it feels," Ademi told DW. "Taking into account that many foreigners came and worked here, and also that many of our people live abroad and have experienced other cultures and religions. Therefore, Albanians won’t be racist."
Kosovo a "friendly place"
Walking around Pristina it was evident that the appreciation of England so openly on display is not just a marketing campaign concocted at the highest level of the FFK, but ingrained in the lives of the locals.
Simon and Les, two England fans who go to almost all of the Three Lions' away games, both experienced it firsthand upon arrival and were blown away by the hospitality of their hosts. "What a friendly place. Everybody has been really good to us," said Les with Simon confirming: "People want to talk to you. They thank you for coming to their country, which is very unusual. You don’t expect that."
The two even managed to procure one of the banners for themselves and used the word "fantastic" to describe them. "This is the best thing anybody has ever done for our country coming for football. It means a lot to us," admitted Les.
Adnan Zeneli, a street vendor selling Kosovo kits, opened up about the culture that Les and Simon were referring to. "We don’t have racism we only fight bad people," he told DW. "We are positive people, and we don’t have anything to do with racism."
A more reserved take came from students Miellma and Trina. "I think we’re playing it safe," said Trina. "Since we are a new country it's good to start safe with anti-discrimination and no hate speech, all of these phenomena. I think it’s a good thing what we are doing collectively and it is sports at the end of the day."
With the eyes of the world on their home country, Miellma was more concerned with first impressions and added: "We don’t want to leave any bad impression because we’re new in football, so I feel it’s not very good for us to have racism involved. And leave that as much behind as possible."
Growing conflict and discrimination
For all the joy and hospitality shown towards the English fans, it should not be forgotten that the relationship of Kosovo-Albanians with other nations or demographics within their own country are marked by discrimination and disadvantage.
The situation for the Serbian minority in the country – roughly 130,000 people among Kosovo's population of 1.8 million – is still tense, even 20 years on from the Rambouillet peace treaty. There remains a persistent threat of violent clashes.
The Serbian Kosovars are dependent on Belgrade for education, health insurance and pensions. Leading politicians in Kosovo, however, have no interest in finding a peaceful resolution with Serbia, which still rejects the independence of the former province and, together without other states, has denied Kosovo access to international organizations such as Interpol. Anybody who makes political moves towards the other is labeled as a traitor, especially by radical opposition parties in both Serbia and Kosovo.
The situation facing the Romani people, another minority group in Kosovo, is also precarious as they are disadvantaged when it comes to education, health and the labor market. As there are in other Balkan states, there are regular reports of the Romani people being victims of violent attacks.
Enemies and friends at EURO 2020
So things are not always as rosy and anti-discriminatory as was made out in the build-up to Kosovo’s game against England. The political tension surrounding UEFA's new member could keep the governing body busy next year if they’re able to qualify for EURO 2020 by way of the playoffs. North Macedonia will provide the opposition in the semifinal, while Belarus or Georgia will await them in the final in Path D.
In Serbia, Russia and possibly Bosnia-Herzegovina, who themselves are in the playoffs, there are two or maybe even three opponents that Kosovo will not be able to be drawn against - if they qualify. Because those nations do not recognize Kosovo, the UEFA statues will prevent them from being matched up in the group stages. No wonder the EURO 2020 draw is already been seen as a complicated process.
However, EURO 2020 could see another meeting between Kosovo and England. Even then, with precious points or a place in the next round on the line, it will still without a doubt be a friendly affair.